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Commission turns over courthouse chambers for administrative use

Following years of debates and delays, Washington County commissioners voted last week to designate the George P. Jaynes Justice Center as a permanent meeting location and repurpose the second floor of the downtown courthouse for use by administrative offices reporting to the county mayor.
Commissioner Mark Larkey spoke in favor of remaining in the Justice Center during the Sept. 2 called meeting by listing the benefits of additional security, more parking, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and additional seating for audience members.
“The biggest reason is the (courthouse) space will be underutilized as commission chambers, and it will be more efficient to have all the administrative offices on the same floor,” Larkey said. “I think it is a sign of leadership that we would sacrifice our facility for reasons of the taxpayer that will be better for county government and not a building for duplicate use.”
Larkey made a motion to designate Courtroom 7 in the Justice Center as the permanent meeting location for the regular meetings of the Board of County Commissioners. The motion was seconded by Commissioner David Tomita and passed in a unanimous voice vote.
Commissioner Lee Chase asked if the furniture and accessories purchased for the courthouse would be utilized in the Justice Center. Chair Greg Matherly said storage is available in the building for the chairs and fixtures, which would be set up and taken down for each meeting.
“I’m all for staying here, but I would like to be mic’d so we can hear each other and the audience can hear us,” Commissioner David Tomita said.
Commissioner Mitch Meredith asked if an electronic voting system was purchased with the audiovisual equipment, noting the 20-minute process the commission just completed in electing a vice chair using paper ballots.
Matherly said the information was presented to the Rules Committee, but a formal recommendation was never made. The option will be presented to the new Rules Committee once formed, he said.
Commissioner Robbie Tester asked if the decision should be more official than just a voice vote, and Mayor Dan Eldridge said a formal change order process would be required. “The only reason I brought it tonight is because we’re back at work,” Eldridge said, referring to renovations on the second floor of the downtown courthouse. “I talked with the fire marshal, and he says we’ve not gone too far yet and could change the design.”
Meredith asked if a request for additional funds was a possibility, and Eldridge said spending more isn’t an option.
“Could that leave us with a half-finished project?” Commissioner Joe Wise asked.
“As far as exposing ourselves to costs, we will take the same steps as we did with the first layout,” Eldridge answered.
The revised floor plan for the former commission chambers will provide additional space to house the Purchasing Department, the Benefits Department, and an office for the proposed director of finance and administration. A meeting room for committees also is included in the design. Payroll and Accounting departments will be located across the hall.
Commissioner Joe Grandy made a motion to repurpose the second floor county commission chambers for use as administrative offices. The motion was seconded by Commissioner Tom Foster and passed in a majority voice vote.
In a later interview, Matherly said several commissioners had approached him during the summer about continuing to meet in the Justice Center. “We’ve been there for 18 months,” he said. “Many commissioners didn’t want to move, but now they have become accustomed to it.”
Matherly also sees many benefits. “It gives the mayor flexibility, it gives the commission more flexibility in Courtroom 7, and structurally, we’re probably better off,” he said.
One original concern was a place for committees, which have been meeting in the Zoning Office conference room and the Washington County Office Building. “We had to ensure we kept meeting space available if we’re losing the office building, and the mayor was agreeable,” he said.
The office building was designated as the site for the Washington County Archive, but the delay in moving the mayor’s offices has prevented renovations from beginning. “We have to be mindful of the other contracts and how long those prices will be good for,” Matherly pointed out.